Can I Live Without Taekwondo?

lonely beach

I haven’t been to taekwondo class in over a week. Not by choice–a sinus infection thanks to Texas allergies knocked me back pretty hard. I was thankfully able to attend a lovely banquet for the U.S. Taekwondo Grandmasters Society in Dallas last Saturday, but other than that my participation in the taekwondo world has been nil.

I haven’t done any forms at home, I haven’t mentally worked through my self defense techniques, I haven’t watched any training videos. My uniforms are all washed and neatly folded in a drawer, and my belt is coiled in my duffel bag, waiting for me. I didn’t do anything related to my practice. It seems like I can live without taekwondo. Or so I thought.

I talked to some of my classmates and instructors off and on for a few days, getting the gossip and funny stories about things that happened in class. By the end of the week communication dwindled to a trickle and finally to nothing. Having been burned several times in the past by giving my heart too freely, I’m pretty gun shy about pursuing communication with people who don’t appear to be very communicative. So I didn’t bother. I was too stubborn to reach out. Maybe I should have been the one to call, text, or even stop by, but I was too afraid of being rejected. Decades of hurt and mistrust overtook me and poisoned the relationships with people I love. Apparently they can live without me too.

Boredom set in, then an aching loneliness, then depression. I have cabin fever. Other than a ballet barre class yesterday I’ve been too tired and congested to exercise. I’ve hidden in my office during most of the workweek. I’ve been reading voraciously during all my time at home, taking full advantage of having a well-stocked library in my house. I’ve written in my journal a lot. I began mixing substances just to get the night over with, not really caring what effects they’d have on me.

To my horror I’m tempted to wrap my protective cocoon around me tighter and mutter, “Fuck all of you, I’m done,” when what I need the most is my familiar dojang and friends. But there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to go back at all. I’m safe at home with my books and my mood-altering substances. I’ve whittled myself down to 110 pounds and feel especially elated every time I step on the scale. I could get used to this. I’ve sunken into isolation before, and I’m very good at staying there. Maybe the relationships I thought were solid are just as superficial as all my other ones. Hiding in plain sight is easier than it sounds. Taekwondo is just an addiction that’s been masking my other addictions.

I’ve made the cruel discovery that not even taekwondo, what I thought was my saving grace, can fulfill whatever it is my heart is looking for. I was just clinging to it, like I had to other things or people, to make myself “happy.” I have to generate that within myself.

I can live without taekwondo, and taekwondo can certainly live without me. How arrogant of me to think that I’m an essential part of the school, part of the gang, one of the boys. I’m only a first degree black belt, just a student who plays dress up as teacher once in a while.

But I don’t like how I feel without taekwondo. I still need it. I’m heartbroken without it, yet I don’t like that I feel so vulnerable to admit it. I see how rapidly I declined without it in only a week. I’m angry that it has such a hold on me that I fall apart without its constant presence in my life. Will the spell be broken once I’m back in class?

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Keeping Your Guard Up

side-kick-face

Someone hasn’t learned high block yet!

“Hands up! Hands UP!!”

Pop into our dojang on any given night and you’ll probably hear my instructor, me, or another black belt yelling at students to keep their hands up, ready to block or strike at a moment’s notice. We keep our hands up most importantly to block blows to the body or head, plus, keeping our hands up is also very useful for maintaining balance during fast-moving drills. (And we’re not doing Riverdance because we like looking cool.)

Learning a martial art has taught me to always be a little bit on guard–ready to move, dodge, or simply keep a keen side eye on someone who might be at threat to my safety. I’m not paranoid; I’m just smarter about my surroundings than I used to be.

I’ve also unfortunately learned I have to be on guard with more people in my life than I thought, including people I genuinely liked and trusted. Recently something happened that, while not a big deal in the large scheme of things, still bothered me deeply and made me question whether I can ever fully trust that certain person. I felt vulnerable, exposed, and embarrassed. I don’t think this person even realized they hurt me, but their actions showed they didn’t have much foresight into how it might have affected me. I have seen them do something similar in the past, so maybe it’s my own fault for not being more guarded in the first place

A larger situation I’ve been facing has shown me who I can truly rely on and trust. It’s shown me who I can go to for comfort and who I need to be more careful around. I have to see this particular person on a semi-regular basis although I’ve gotten pretty good at keeping my distance. They mean me no harm, but this is not the first time this person has crossed the line. We both need things from each other, and I am more than happy to play nice…and my guard is up. My hands are up, I’m on the balls of my feet, and I’m ready to move quickly to protect myself.

Thankfully my taekwondo family are just about on par with my blood family–I trust them completely. Maybe beating the crap out of each other brings a certain intimacy to the relationship, but more likely it’s our deeply rooted bond over something we love to do. The desire to help, serve, and lift others up is implicit. In other non-taekwondo/non-family areas of my life I’m looking out for Number One. Although I’m interacting with, helping, and serving others, my ultimate priority is protecting my well-being, interests, goals, and plans. My guard is up, and incidents like these show me (the hard way) that I need to keep it up at all times. Sometimes you have to get hit to learn how to defend. Just like in a fight, it’s a necessary and sad truth.

Sparring Multiple Partners

multiple-attackers-ip-man

Ohhh…crap, I didn’t think this through.

“Black belts, get up and make a line in the center of the room.”

During sparring class that’s my chief instructor’s cue for us to line up and let the lower ranking students take a stab–or well, I mean punch–at us. For a while he would assign one student per black belt, but lately he’s been assigning two students to each black belt for two-on-one sparring. If I get the little kids, it’s more funny than anything else, and I spend half my time coaching them on how to get me rather than really fighting them.

It becomes more serious when I’m matched with partners my size (or larger, which is often the case since I’m fairly small) or worse, with other black belts. The larger partners have more brute force, and the black belts fight smarter and know how to work together.

The basic rule of fighting multiple partners is to not let yourself get between them. If they trap you from either side it’s very dangerous unless you’re Liam Neeson, and then it’s just bad for the attackers. What I’ve learned to do is always keep the attackers in more of line so at any point I’m only facing one. I don’t let them corner me on either side, of it they do, I go after the closest one and fight my way out of the tight spot.

Seeing as I’m not Liam Neeson or Uma Thurman’s character from “Kill Bill,” I really don’t do a lot of offensive moves when I’m sparring multiple people. Even in a controlled environment like a taekwondo dojang, sparring multiple attackers takes on a scarier and more primal element. I can’t waste time seriously fighting one person if another one is creeping up on me. I just have to stay on the defensive, block like mad, and run like hell. If it were a real life situation I wouldn’t be doing roundhouse kicks anyway. Hide your eyes, hide your kneecaps, hide your crotches, cause I’ll be gunning for them.

While I’ve gotten used to the concept of sparring multiple people in taekwondo class and always am aware of it as an unfortunate possibility of it happening on “the streets,” I found myself in that situation in a very unexpected place, and it was more unsettling than any physical fight. I won’t say exactly where, but it’s a place where I usually feel safe, respected, and valued.

During a gathering of people I normally got along with well, one person questioned the way I was doing something and suggested that I do something differently. I understood their argument clearly and was ready to respond that I agreed and would be happy to change course as long as I got some suggestions…but I never got that chance. Instead I got a repetitive filibuster directed at me rather than to me.

Then other people joined in, talking about me rather than to me, even though I was in the room looking at them dumbfounded and unwillingly silenced. Granted, it was not personal insults or harsh criticism, but they would not show me the respect of being quiet for two seconds and letting me respond. I actually agreed with them and was ready to say, “Yes, I see your point, and I’ll go along with that if that’s best for everyone. Let me make arrangements to change plans right away,”but apparently that would have been too simple and straightforward.

What could have been a 5 minute conversation turned into a whirlwind of anxiety-ridden arguments and hijacked conversation threads that pushed me further and further away from my opportunity to respond. It was humiliating, demeaning, and has severely damaged my trust with many of the people involved. The irony wasn’t lost on me that I saw a production of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” last week.

And so I found myself unwittingly having to spar multiple attackers. I silently reminded myself to stay cool (all the while hearing my chief instructor’s voice in my head saying, “Don’t let it escalate”) and look forward to an evening of taekwondo class where all of this nonsense would be forgotten.

I realized after thirty minutes of everyone talking over each other (except for me, to whom the original question was directed at) that I couldn’t get a word in edgewise (or in the TKD world, that would be a punch or a kick) so I’d have to just go on the defense, block as best I could, and run like hell before they started jabbing at me from all sides. I kept my eyes on my “partners” and waited for an opening to say something along the lines of, “Enough. We’re good. Everything’s cool,” just so we could call the match and get out.

What I learned from this incident is that your best strategy for fighting back may not always go as planned. You may be blindsided. There may be multiple attackers. They may have weapons. They may be people you know. You may have to just do what you can to get yourself out of harm’s way, heroics be damned. Don’t get between them. Get out of the way and protect yourself as best you can.

After my harrowing escape I received an online message from my brother. He had watched a video that one of the taekwondo dads posted on social media. In the video I was kicking hard, fighting harder, and smiling with pride and joy in the place where I am happiest with people I look forward to seeing all day.

“It’s very cool,” his message read. “You look like a badass.”

That’s right. I AM a badass. I know who I am and what I value. And I now have a clearer picture of who’s got my back and when I need to be watching out for wolf packs.

The Poomsae Series: Koryo, or Managing Change Like a Black Belt

This post is part of The Poomsae Series, which discusses life lessons gained from taekwondo forms or “poomsae.” Forms, typically practiced to hone technique, have also been for me a type of moving meditation that quiets my mind and helps me stay present.

[A Note for Taekwondo Folks: In this post I’m discussing the common first dan black belt form Koryo. In my school we refer to it as “Koryo Two” because we also do a rarely-used, older form at the bo dan level we call “Koryo One.” Bo dan is the final color belt level before first degree black belt. Reader Jon Karlsen was kind enough to post a video of “Koryo One” in the comments of this post. To avoid confusion among readers from different schools, in this post I will refer what my school calls “Koryo Two” by its universal name, Koryo.]

In case I’ve needlessly confused anyone with that introduction, I’m talking about THIS ONE:

koryo ready stance

ANYWAY…

Even though it’s not a mind-melt like the primitive, creepy, and confusing other first dan form Keumgang (don’t tell me that mountain block/horseback stomping thing isn’t unnerving), Koryo gave me a run for my money when I was first learning it. While it follows the familiar sideways H pattern of the color belt Palgwe forms, Koryo is complex and full of intricate pieces, much like the blue belt form Oh Jang or the black tip form Pal Jang.

Not only is Koryo complicated, it is downright nasty, incorporating double side kicks, throat grabs, knee breaks, and a move that a teenage classmate so eloquently refers to as “mining the family jewels.” Even the ready stance at the very beginning is threatening. There’s a lot going on in this form.

As I do whenever I’m learning a new form, I’ve been waiting for the lesson of Koryo to emerge. It hit me during a recent staff meeting that Koryo can teach me how to manage change in a confident and mature way. Guess what we were talking about in the staff meeting? Hint: it wasn’t knee breaks, although that would have been fun.

My team recently experienced a major change that we’re just now figuring out how to maneuver around. For some of my teammates the change is a profound shift in their identity and focus. For me, it’s narrowing the scope of what I do. I still report to the same person and will hang onto the major projects, so it’s not as big a change for me as it is for others. As with Koryo, I’m still following the same foundational “pattern,” but some of the details will be new and different. I see this as an opportunity to help my coworkers who are experiencing a greater change than I am. If I’m expected as a black belt to guide less experienced students, I can also help the teammates who are going through greater change navigate the unfamiliar.

Like most employees in the corporate world, I’m no stranger to change. As a long-time employee in the corporate headquarters of a large multi-hospital healthcare organization, I’m VERY used to experiencing change. Notice I said “used to” change, but not necessarily “comfortable” with change. I’ve had to learn how to adapt along with everyone else.

Whether you’re a martial artist, a couch potato, a corporate employee, entrepreneur, a new parent, or a college student, there are some things you can do to manage change with black belt confidence:

1. Trust your past experience.
You know more than you think you do. Everyone has transferrable skills they can use to help them adapt to new situation. Koryo is a complicated form, but much of it is comprised of strikes, stances, and blocks that I already know. I’ve also developed enough skill and body awareness to pick up on new things more quickly than I could when I was a lower ranking student, so I know I’ll get it down eventually. Are you changing careers? Beginning an internship? Starting a business? Trust your past experience.

2. Ask for help.
I learned early in my career (and my taekwondo journey) that it’s better to ask for clarification up front rather than pretend I understand and then have to go back and ask for help later. Asking for help does not mean you are stupid, lazy, or incompetent. Asking for help shows humility, thoughtfulness, and dedication. If someone has a problem with you asking for help, that’s on them, not you.

3. Surround yourself with smart allies.
This goes hand-in-hand with asking for help. You don’t have to be an expert at everything. Seeking out those with different experiences and skills will help you deal with areas that are out of your comfort zone.

4. Ask for the “why.”
The biggest complaint I hear about change is the feeling of being kept in the dark. If you’re not given the reason why behind a change, ask for it! You’re not being insolent or difficult. Explain that understanding why things are changing will help you be better prepared to adapt quickly and contribute to the change process. On the taekwondo front, when I was learning the black tip form Pal Jang, things finally started to click for me when my Grandmaster explained the purpose of each of the blocks and strikes. Koryo has a logical flow and rhythm to it as well. (Keumgang still makes no sense.)

Incidentally, if someone has a problem with you asking “why” then they are probably the same type of jerk who gets huffy when you ask for help.

5. Learn!
Learn from your failures as well as your triumphs. One of my coworkers has a saying: “Don’t be frustrated; be fascinated.” When presented with a challenge, view it as a puzzle to solve rather than a hardship to endure. The willingness to learn (and APPLY what you learn) gives you your power back when you may be feeling helpless in a volatile, changing situation.

….or just break someone’s knee if that’s easier.

I Can Do This With My Eyes Closed

Tightrope-walking-blindfolded

“Uh-oh, I know what we’re going to do,” said a teenage black belt in a half-groan/half-giggle. It was red and black belt class, our late night class after sparring. My fellow red belts and bo dans abandoned me after sparring, so all that was left were me, the teenager who never comes to sparring (ahem!), and an older man who got his black belt last year.

My instructor’s face lit up as he steepled his fingers together and positioned us in a wide diagonal line across the floor. “I want you to do Koryo One again,” he said after we had just completed the form as a warm-up. “But this time I want you to do it with your eyes closed.”

My eyes danced furiously under my closed lids, trying desperately to make sense of what was going on. I ignored them and focused on breathing deeply, shifting my weight, and making sure I stayed low in my stances. I opened my eyes and felt refreshed and excited, as if I’d gotten to know the form on a much deeper level.

Then we did the two other red belt forms, and that’s when things started to fall apart. I began to feel wobbly and unsure. I lost my balance, shuffled timidly and stiffly through stances, and somehow inexplicably flung myself into the left side wall and ballet barre during the part of the Palgwe Pal-jang that is directed straight towards the back of the room. (Notice that my instructor did nothing to stop me, probably because he was laughing too hard).

“What the heck just happened?” I shouted when I stumbled into the end of the form and blinked open my eyes. Perhaps my attempt at Koryo One was successful because it was the first form I’d ever practiced with my eyes closed, and I had no expectations. Perhaps it was successful because unlike the other forms, it only goes back and forth on the vertical axis. The individual strikes and blocks are complex, but the movement pattern is simple. (Koryo One is also the only form that I can fully do in my hallway without modifying it or running into anything….hey, I was doing laundry and I was bored.)

Perhaps my deteriorating performance of the forms Chil-jang and Pal-jang was because I started to lose confidence and doubt my own abilities.

My last post offered the concept of trusting ourselves when our worlds get turned upside down. It could be the same challenge or something very similar we’ve faced before, but the perspective has changed, and that makes it scary. Sometimes we might be facing a challenge with limitations such as time, money, resources, support, or one of our senses. If we get too wrapped up in dwelling on what we can’t control then we will end up emotionally paralyzed and will run into even more walls, figuratively or literally. The trick is to focus on what we can control and what we can do, no matter the limitations or obstacles we face.

Turn Your World Upside Down

upsidedown-world1

Duuuuuuuuuuuuuude….

Tonight in yoga class I did a headstand for the first time since I was in my mid-twenties….sort of. About halfway through class our teacher did a mini-workshop on the pose, which he had promised us after a request in last week’s class. He walked us through the process, emphasizing that no matter how good you get, you should always follow the steps to ensure safety.

“I ALWAYS measure my elbows,” he said, tucking the space between his forefingers and thumbs into the crooks of his elbows, “and make my base. Then I make my basket. No matter how good I get I always measure my elbows and make my basket.” He laced his fingers together and made a base for his head. Slowly he lifted one straight leg into the air, and then the other, breathing deeply and seeming to move his his legs and twist his torso with ease.

“What are you afraid of? What happens if you fall over?” he said after a few moments of watching us grunt and tumble around like puppies. “It’s just tadasana,” he continued, referring to one of the most basic yet integral poses of yoga. Tadasana is a standing pose that engages the entire body from the toes to the core to the crown of the head. It provides the sturdy frame for standing poses such as tree, horizontal poses such as plank and side plank, and even inversions such as headstand.

He motioned for me to come to the front of the class and help him demonstrate. After walking me through tadasana, signaling me to tighten up and straighten my muscles from my toes to my head he was able to move me back and forth like a stiff piece of plywood. I was feeling more confident. I can do tadasana all day. Just don’t ask me to do headstand again.

He then had me turn around and mimic the foundation for headstand of the elbows and forearms over my head, complete with the finger basket. “Oohh, I’m glad we wore the racerback top, that will really show off our swimmer shoulders and back muscles,” my ego chirped, elbowing me in the ribs. “Shut up, I’m trying to concentrate!” I whispered back.

At my teacher’s command I pressed my forearms and elbows up into his palms as if I were inverted and pressing my arms into the floor. Okay, I’m still feeling just fine in tadasana, and okay maybe now I’m ready for headstand, but…no, wait, I’m not ready!

I returned to the floor, measured my elbows, snuggled my head into my finger basket, and lifted one straight leg into the air. “Tadasana!” my teacher whispered, smacking the sole of my foot so I would flex it. Tentatively I lifted the other leg. For a split second I felt myself tip backwards and gasped in panic.

“It’s OK, I’ve got you,” my teacher said, tapping the back of my ankle with his hand. Slowly he backed away and before I knew it I found that I was doing headstand all on my own, built from a foundation of trust and strength I didn’t know I had. I tried it again on my own and couldn’t quite get both legs in the air, but I was very satisfied with that one time I was able to fully express the pose.

“It’s the fear of the unknown,” my teacher said as he walked around the room and gently guided other students into headstand. “That’s why this pose is scary, but just remember that it’s only tadanasa upside down.”

How often to we back away from projects, opportunities, and even relationships because of the fear of the unknown? How often do we freak out and run the opposite way because something seems so scary and different and foreign that we can’t possibly comprehend making that change? How often do we not trust ourselves to provide that solid foundation when things get turned on their head?

I thought about the last time I did headstand as a young twenty something. I had no idea that my life would take so many twists and turns into the unknown. I had no idea I would change careers or go back to school. I had no idea that a great love would enter my life.  I had no idea that when that great love left my life and my world was turned upside down I’d still be standing strong on a foundation of trust and faith in myself. And of course I had no idea that I would be months away from testing for my black belt in taekwondo.

What are those “unknowns” that you are afraid of? Build your foundation of safety and trust. Does it still seem scary? Just try one foot at a time, one step at a time. Still scary? Rest for a moment….And then take a deep breath and move into it again. You’ve got this.

Looking for the right yoga mat to support you in your headstands? Check out Reviews.com for the Best Yoga Mat Reviews of 2017.

Break Fall

falling-girl-part-02 Wednesday night in red and black belt class we practiced falling. “Don’t drop like you’re dead,” my instructor said to me and the other bo dans after we morosely plopped forward, landing forearms-first on a heavy mat. “Hit your arms against the ground and don’t sink your body into it,” he said, emphasizing his statement by popping his arms. Falling face-forward is scary, but if you know how to protect yourself, you can fall with confidence.

Our falls aren’t passive. In a way it’s similar to the technical aspects of partner work in modern dance and ballet. If you’re the lifter you’re not just muscling up dead weight, and if you’re the one being lifted (or in the case of taekwondo, thrown), you’re not a limp rag doll, even if you are pretending to be a rag doll in some kind of weirdo contemporary dance. You have to think about foot placement, weight distribution, safety, breathing, protecting your back if you’re the lifter/thrower, following silent cues from your partner, and landing so you protect your joints and head.

Anyone familiar with martial arts has probably heard the adage, “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” Or if you’d like a more modern version of this tenet in the rap song “Still” Dr. Dre says, “Even when I was close to defeat I rose to my feet.” Indeed, Mr. Young, indeed.

Perseverance is one of the guiding principles of taekwondo. It can also be easy to forget in the heat of defeat. Lying passively on the ground can be quite comfortable, but you can’t stay there forever. I encountered a major disappointment over the weekend, and I did have that dark moment of thinking things were never going to get better. But they do. If you’re lucky enough you wake up the next day and are still breathing. If you’re really lucky you can put one foot on the ground and then the other. Falls are going to happen. The trick is to break the fall so they don’t break us. Re-watching “The Big Lebowski” helps too.

Later in the class we played around with some advanced self-defense throws. To demonstrate one of the techniques my instructor hooked his arm around my leg after I’d kicked at him, grabbed my lapel with his other hand, and swiftly threw me to the ground all in a matter of about 3 seconds. I knew it was coming, but I was still a little stunned when I slammed into the mat. It was scary because he threw me so fast and I hit pretty hard, but it was also a little exhilarating. I had survived. I had made it.